Digital assistants are the next marketing revolution. Here’s how to be ready

Digital assistants are fundamentally changing the way we live, and therefore, the way brands engage with consumers. Merkle’s SVP of Search Capability, Matt Mierzejewski, discusses the opportunity and what brands can do now to be ready.

The “holy grail” of marketing is being able to predict consumers’ needs. And I have no doubt that digital assistant technology will get us there. Digital assistants are already going beyond providing simple “request and response” features. From giving us makeup advice to adding magic to our kids’ bedtime stories, they’re changing the way brands engage with people.

Imagine what will be possible with additional customer signals. Think about the digital assistant that understands our daily routines and needs, to not just respond, but recommend. That’s an incredible value exchange for the user — one where the digital assistant moves beyond reactive response based on user query and into proactive recommendation based on user context.

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Let me paint a picture for you of how brands could interact with customers via a digital assistant. Imagine this conversation:

User: “OK, Google. What’s the best brand of running shoes?”
Google Assistant: “Good question. Are you looking for yourself, Sheila, or the kids?”
User: “For me.”
Google Assistant: “Based on your workout patterns, it looks like you like trail running more than asphalt. Is that right?”
User: “Yep, mainly trail running.”
Google Assistant: “Based on popular ratings, reviews, and product purchases, here are the top three brands for you. Would you rather buy online or in a store?”
User: “I want to go look at some today.”
Google Assistant: “OK, there’s a sporting goods store on 5th Street with these shoes available, and there are even some size 10s in stock. Would you like me to hold them for you in the store?”
User: “Yep. I’ll swing by there this afternoon.”
Google Assistant: “I’ll put it on your to-do list and remind you when you are downtown.”

Digital assistants are enabling brands to be helpful in more meaningful ways

The kind of conversation illustrated above is closer than you may think. Sure, it may be hard to see now, when the most common voice interactions revolve around seemingly mundane, everyday tasks, like making calls, playing music, setting timers, checking the weather, or monitoring sports and events. Not very useful for driving brand growth.

But digital assistants are evolving. They can be built to enable a predictive relationship, engage in meaningful dialog, and proactively — not just reactively — support the end user. Brands are constantly looking for users who are in the market and in the right mindset to engage. That’s why, at Merkle, we’re seeing more clients wanting to incorporate digital assistants into their marketing strategy.

Start building assistive experiences now with the data you have

Laying the groundwork for delighting customers via digital assistants starts with predicting your customers’ needs and knowing how you can be more assistive through the channels you’re already using. In other words, don’t wait. Being assistive doesn’t require a digital assistant experience. Start building assistive experiences with the customer data you have now.

Don’t wait. Being assistive doesn’t require a digital assistant experience.

When we talk with our clients about paving the way for digital assistant experiences, we focus on knowing the customer, knowing their context, and building meaningful experiences based on the available customer data. That’s an exercise you should start today before you approach digital assistant conversation design.

Re-examine the consumer experiences already in your tool kit — your ads, your website, your call center, your store. Are they as helpful as they can be? Do they make the most of the customer data you already have at your fingertips?

That’s where we see our clients hit roadblocks. They’re often sitting on lots of data about their customers, but they’re not using it to its fullest extent.

Don’t undervalue the power of context

Knowing who you’re building an assistive experience for is critical. But context is also important to determine how the assistive experience can be most helpful. And that context can be something like someone’s location, mood, or needs in a particular moment. These dynamic attributes can impact what messages the user will be receptive to and, even more critically, when and where. Take the shoe example above. The digital assistant distills the consumer’s intent to purchase into an opportunity to try on shoes nearby.

With lots of customer signals come lots of creative possibilities. Start to think now about how your messaging, segmentation, and ad spend would change if you knew more about your customers’ context — that is, their intent in that moment in time. For instance, if you run a restaurant, what if you knew someone nearby was looking for a last-minute reservation for a large group? Or looking for family-friendly dining options for a picky toddler? How would you use that data — and in what combination — to create more useful experiences? What message would you promote and how would it change? How would that change the amount you’d be willing to invest against these attributes?

Start to think now about how your messaging, segmentation, and ad spend would change if you knew more about your customers’ context.

We recently worked with City Pass, a brand that sells discounted admission to attractions in popular cities across North America, to build context and utility into its messaging. The team’s goal was to reach some of their most valuable customers, people who were seeking last-minute deals — not people who were preplanning their travel from afar.

To reach these qualified users, we developed last-minute-searcher campaigns targeting key metro areas with a focus on mobile traffic. Only individuals searching in those locations would see last-minute search ads, including generic queries such as “atlanta sightseeing.”

That segmentation was only half the story. From there, City Pass ensured that the user experience for smartphone searchers would involve a mobile-responsive design, along with a seamless checkout process and the ability to download and view a mobile voucher — no printer required. In this case, understanding their customers’ context — specific queries, location, and device — and building a context-based, assistive experience resulted in more relevant messaging and an 8% improvement in ROI compared to campaigns that didn’t take contextual cues into consideration.

Get to know the people behind the personas to get a jump on digital assistant conversations

Laying the groundwork now to understanding customers’ assistance needs, even in ways that don’t seem to immediately generate revenue, will go a long way toward building your brand’s role when it comes to digital assistant conversations.

Take the customer data you have now, and view it through the lens of context or intent. In other words, get to know the people behind the personas. As in the conversation about running shoes above, it’s the difference between knowing which retailers sell shoes and which stores near you have your size in stock. The former is less personal and less useful. The latter takes your unique needs into consideration.

As you start to think about solving a real person’s needs in a real moment in time, the scenarios in which your brand can be more assistive will come to light. Then you’ll be on your way to designing future digital assistant conversations.

Why unifying your customer data is the only way to truly know your customer